Last week, Minding the Campus featured an interesting essay by Anthony Paletta on DePaul University’s denial of tenure to the controversial polemicist Norman Finkelstein. Tenure decisions have traditionally rested largely on the excellence of published scholarship. Finkelstein’s scholarship has raised many questions about its cogency and quality with the tenure review committees. But the thrust of DePaul’s case against Finkelstein was the issue of “respect for colleagues.” By many accounts he’s an unpleasant fellow, but as an academic that should not be the centerpiece for his tenure denial. Paletta cites FIRE’s recent case with Professor Walter Kehowski at Glendale Community College as an example of where the criterion “respect for colleagues” can end. He writes:
There’s little doubt that Finkelstein is a jerk, but DePaul’s grounding of its refusal in that fact—instead of holes in his academic work—leaves it open to justified criticism. “Collegiality” is a potentially insidious concept—just ask Walter Kehorski [sic], a professor at Glendale Community College, who was just released from a forced administrative leave for the crime of emailing George Washington’s Thanksgiving address to fellow professors. The crime? Creating a “hostile environment.” Finkelstein’s faults are clearly of a higher order than this, but all should be wary of arguments premised upon a professor’s sociability, instead of his scholarship.
Paletta discusses Ward Churchill, the discredited radical professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who resigned his position as chair of the department after garnering public attention by calling the victims of the 9/11 attacks “little Eichmanns.” Finkelstein is a public intellectual known for his contentious statements and controversial beliefs. The fact that these controversies brought special attention to these professors’ scholarship does not excuse that poor scholarship. But whatever tenure decisions are made should be predicated on that scholarship, and not on the controversy and angst caused by their viewpoints.
To deny tenure to such characters as Finkelstein and Churchill, even if their scholarship begs it, for subjective criteria such as “collegiality” will only open competent professors to similar treatment for simply residing out of the academic mainstream or being critical of university governance. Paletta brings up Peter Berkowitz, a current professor at George Mason University who had his tenure bid overturned by Harvard President Neil Rudenstine with no explanation after Berkowitz criticized a book written by Rudenstine’s friend. Last year, FIRE came to the aid of Stephen Kershnar, a professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, who was denied a promotion by the university president after publishing a column in the local newspaper criticizing the university’s student conduct code. To avoid such embarrassing debacles, universities must allow professors to critique American society and institutions—including the universities they work for—and leave those criticisms out of hiring and tenure decisions.